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Mary Beard Keeps History on the Move

If you happen to be speaking with someone who is unfamiliar with Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire Mary Beard, it may take you a few tries to convey her cultural post. “Classicist” doesn’t quite capture it. “Celebrity historian” inches closer. In a Guardian profile, a colleague of Beard’s recalls a crew of English schoolgirls glimpsing the scholar, a longtime pillar of Cambridge’s faculty, as she prepared to film a documentary about the lost city of Pompeii. “They went insane,” the colleague said. “It was like they’d seen a boy band.”

Stateside, Beard may be best known as the author of “SPQR,” a doorstop Roman history, and “Women and Power,” a trenchant study of ancient and modern attitudes toward female speech. She also contributes criticism to the London Review of Books and maintains a blog, “A Don’s Life,” for the Times Literary Supplement. On television, whether narrating the reboot of the BBC’s series “Civilisations,” demystifying classical attitudes toward immigration, or staging cultural debates from her study, Beard, now sixty-six, seems perfectly cast in the role of the public intellectual: incisive, personable, just shy of charmingly unkempt. She exudes modesty—she could not have been more polite when I mixed up Leonidas, the king of Sparta, with Scipio Africanus, a Roman general who lived some three hundred years later—and her voice slips easily into a storyteller’s rhythm. Online, Beard is a frequent user of Twitter, and as Rebecca Mead observed in a 2014 Profile, she’s found an unlikely hobby in taming Internet trolls. (“She should be able to analyze Augustus’s dictums, or early A.D. epithets / Without having to scroll through death, bomb, and rape threats,” a spoken-word poem uploaded to YouTube goes.) Yet Beard seems delighted to edify and even befriend her haters. Several years ago, a former Twitter adversary asked her for a job recommendation letter. She said yes.

In April, Howard University announced that it was dissolving its classics department, a move that punctuates a heated debate about whether Greco-Roman history should be taught separately or differently from the history of other ancient societies. A new wave of scholars, such as Princeton’s Dan-el Padilla Peralta, view the discipline as inextricable from the imperialist mind-set that created it; they claim that classics sustains a mythology of whiteness. As the field’s most famous practitioner, and a dedicated anti-racist and feminist, Beard takes a middle position: she believes neither that classics deserves a pedestal nor that it must be destroyed. Recently, in conversation, Beard defended her stance—and spoke about feminist translations, Internet manners, and the fluid properties of the canon. Our exchange has been edited for clarity.

I was looking over the list of subjects that you specialize in—things like civilization, empire, power, the exile of women from the public sphere—and thinking that this should be a light, relaxing conversation.

Oh, dear!

But you’ve also written about Roman laughter. Do you have a favorite classical joke to start us off?

Don’t get your hopes up—they’re not that funny. But what’s interesting about them, I think, is that they’re not incomprehensible; they fall on a spectrum of what might strike us as humorous today. Here’s a relatively clean one. A man runs into a friend of his in the city. The friend acts surprised; “I thought you were dead!” he says. “No,” the man says, “I mean, here I am. I’m alive.” And the friend gives him a doubtful look and says, “Well, the person who told me you were dead is much more reliable than you are!”

[Awkward laughter.]

No, it’s not going to make you a lot of money in comedy places, is it? But the joke is, for me, quite interesting, because it’s about one of the things that we forget about pre-modern culture, which is how difficult it was to prove who you were. There were no I.D. cards, no passports. The construction of an authentic, authoritative version of “this is me” was actually quite hard.

I was just listening to an author speak about humor. She said that writers can use it as a mark of in-groups and out-groups: you sort of know who your people are by who laughs at your jokes. So humor can be used to signal loneliness or absence, as when a character says something funny and there’s no one there to hear it.

That’s right. The aggression in humor is not just, Oh, people are laughing at you. It can be subtler—someone declining to notice that you’ve made a joke, withholding their laughter. That can be just as hostile as people piling on you, I think! And again, there’s quite a lot in Roman comedy about how other people know who you are, and how you know who you are, which is bound up, as you say, in laughter and the notion of identification.

What got you interested in classics? I heard there was an origin story.

There is, and yet I distrust it, because you start to tell origin stories and then they become mythologized. But I went to the British Museum when I was about five, with my mom. I wanted to see the Egyptian stuff—not just the mummies, which scared me, but Egyptian daily life. And my mom said, as we were going through this gallery, “In that case is a piece of ancient Egyptian cake, three thousand years old.” I couldn’t see it because it was far up, in the back of the case. And, at that moment, a guy came by, asked if there was something I wanted to see, got the keys out of his pocket, opened the case, and brought out the cake. He put it right up to my nose. And it was totally memorable—partly because, my God, it was a three-thousand-year-old piece of cake—but also because of his facilitation. There was a locked museum case and someone came and opened it up for me. It’s been quite a symbol for me, because I think everybody’s in a position to unlock museum cases for other people.

Of course, I realize that the charming little five-year-old white girl probably has a better experience than many others do. Museums can keep people out by suggesting versions of culture that aren’t inclusive. And yet I also know that they can get people in.

I want to ask you about whether you think that our approach to the past, or maybe our goals in studying the past, are shifting. It seems like contemporary historians are often trying not only to reconstruct history but to remake what the discipline does. There seems to be a strong corrective impulse, and more space for imagination or speculation. Does that sound off base to you?

I think that’s true. But I’m old enough to say that every generation has that corrective impulse, and that’s part of what keeps history on the move. I remember when I was a student and the person speaking to us in Cambridge was Moses Finley, a great historian of ancient Greece. And he just exuded that sense of wanting to rework the way we think about the past, by looking at slavery, debt, poverty, the fragility of democracy. History would be very dull if we weren’t always trying to change how it was done. It’s our conversation with the dead, and we practice a kind of ventriloquism in order to hear from the other side.

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